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Unlocking Talent in Malawi

Seán Fitzmaurice is a retired secondary school teacher from Dublin who recently commenced his volunteer placement training teachers on the Unlocking Talent through Technology programme in Lilongwe, Malawi. He discusses the positive impact he's seen on his placement to date and what it's been like setting into Malawian life. 

I work on a VSO project in Malawi aimed at improving basic numeracy and literacy among first and second primary school classes. The project involves using solar powered iPads and child-centred methods to teach these basic skills in specially constructed learning centres. Research has shown that students make far greater progress in these learning centres compared to their normal vastly overcrowded classrooms. At the moment, there are over seventy such centres and plans are in place for the Ministry of Education to build an extra five hundred over the next three years.

The education system in Malawi faces huge challenges. There is a severe shortage of classrooms, resulting in huge overcrowding. This has the knock on effect of very low rates of primary school completion, particularly among girls. My role has been to support schools by training local teachers in this new methodology and helping to ensure that pupils get the maximum benefit from the programme. The schools have been very supportive and the pupils love learning in these centres. Many teachers have commented that pupil attendance has already increased significantly.

Expectations versus reality

Before travelling to Malawi, I had expected poverty but not to the extent I've seen. The schools are large and classes massive, the average size being 150 with only two teachers assigned. On our project, a group of 30 go into a designated classroom to use iPads to learn basic literacy and numeracy. It is the first time they get personal attention and they get totally engrossed, despite the fact that they have eaten nothing for about 15 hours.

I recently called to one school where the programme is to be introduced within the next month. There happened to be a meeting of the head teachers from the surrounding areas. Of the 25, two were female. I used the opportunity to explain what we were doing in the project schools. They were, like all Malawians, friendly and gentle. I went outside with the head teacher and an inspector for a meeting under a tree. It was 26 degrees and, thanks to the gentle breeze, I could have stayed all day. During this meeting I noticed the mode of transport for the 25. One forlorn bicycle.

I had my first registration of pupils in a school on Friday for the literacy and numeracy project in one rural school. Of the 1100 pupils in first and second class, 600 were absent. The rains had fell heavily for three hours and the puddled roads, no raingear or any kind of footwear and the long journeys had affected attendance. Most of those present were very shabbily dressed. One particular girl stood out as she arrived with a large handbag. Her teacher welcomed her into the classroom as Mrs. Thatcher.

For pupils to login to their iPads they just have to touch on their photograph. Most of them have to rely on their friends to find their own picture as they would have never seen themselves before.

Malawian way of life

The vista for the future here is appalling. It has taken just 50 years for the population to treble despite the AIDS wipe-out. In the next 30 years, it will treble again to 44 million. The huge dependence on one staple crop, maize, results in little or no crop rotation thus making it very prone to disease.

On my first day at the DEMS (District Education Manager), I walked five miles to work. The locals in the office were amazed by my choice of transport – I later found out why. If you don't have your own transport you have six choices. A taxi is readily available but expensive. You can hire a three wheel motorised yoke from India called a tuk tuk somewhat cheaper. Minibuses are also available, although there is never any sign of the intended destination and they regularly break down due to old age. A motorbike taxi can be got at a reasonable price. At the bottom of the paid transport system is the bicycle taxi, which covers shorter journeys at very low cost. Local culture deems that if you walk you must be poor. Of course, most people walk.

People here work in peasant farming, the casual economy or security. You can buy nearly anything on the roadside, from a worn-out hen to a prized coffin. A few weeks ago I was intrigued by a fella on a busy road with three buckets and a shovel. In the first one were small stones which he placed in the potholes. In the second bucket was soil which he placed on top of the stones and used the shovel to pack it tightly. The third bucket was used to collect donations from the passing motorists. The fact that the heavy rains would wash away his handy work ensured that he was needed again for the following day. The rainy season gave him a taste of permanent work.

Insights into the education system

Last Thursday I was helping register pupils in preparation for the opening of a new learning centre. I couldn't but notice the filthy rags worn by the first class pupils – that was their uniform. Many of their hands and legs were no thicker than broom handles and scalp infections were common. All of them were beaming with delight.

On Friday I called to a school on an initial visit to meet the principal. He told me that there were 193 enrolled in second class yet only 90 regularly attend, the reminder never been seen. I was shocked. Why can this happen? There is very little regard for education due to the high levels if illiteracy in these rural areas. Children are also seen as being much more valuable as workers in the peasant farming and casual trading sector.

Reflections on volunteering

On the weekends I go for a walk in the local botanical gardens, a rather grandiose term for a wooded area with the odd flower. It is a place of religious pilgrimage. All religious types gather her individually or in groups. They sing, rant, chant, preach and beseech in a heavenly direction oblivious to each other. One day I heard a woman pleading to the heavens for more maize and more grace. God and Mammon in reverse order you might say. One day a fella was roaring out a mantra as I was passing by. He caught my eye and smiled as if to say 'don't mind me, this is normal around here'.

I find the work in this challenging environment very rewarding and meaningful. Other VSO staff whether voluntary or otherwise are very supportive and help greatly in overcoming the many daily obstacles which one faces. I am here four months now and am looking forward to the next twenty. As a retiree I heartily recommend this type of voluntary work.

Interested in volunteering with VSO Ireland?

We always need experienced teachers like Seán to share their skills on our programmes and help more children get the education they need. Please see our Vacancies page for a list of current opportunities. 

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